After a three-game losing streak, Northwestern stopped the bleeding Thursday night with a victory over Nebraska. Meanwhile, Illinois is coming off of a strong win over the No. 9 Michigan State Spartans – coincidentally the same team Northwestern upset for its marquee victory of the season. Northwestern is facing another must-win game against Illinois on Super Bowl Sunday and hopefully the ‘Cats can channel the 2008 Giants and upset the Illini.
What happened last time:
Northwestern faced Illinois for the first time this season just under a month ago, the first of a series of heartbreaking losses. The Illini bested the ‘Cats by one point, 57-56, after a late rally came up just short at Welsh-Ryan. John Shurna scored 20 points in that game, but 17 came in the first half except for a key three-pointer that made the score 55-54 with just over 30 seconds left. On the last play of the game, sophomore Meyers Leonard blocked Drew Crawford’s attempt in the key to preserve the Illini win.
What’s changed since then:
The last time these teams met was Northwestern’s first loss of 2012. Since then, the ‘Cats have gone 2-4 and are 13-8 on the year and 3-6 in the Big Ten. Now, every game for Northwestern is a virtual must-win if the ‘Cats want to recover from a series of disappointing losses and the game against Illinois is no different. Over the course of the season, Northwestern has faced growing depth problems, exacerbated by recent injuries to sophomore JerShon Cobb and senior Luka Mirkovic. The last time these teams met was earlier in the season and there were more players at Coach Carmody’s disposal, but now Northwestern has to overcome fatigue if it wants to avenge last month’s loss.
Key matchup: Dave Sobolewski vs. Brandon Paul
Even though he’s not on the hot streak he was on earlier in the season, Sobo’s still a huge factor in Northwestern’s success. The freshman played all but two minutes against Nebraska and is still finding the best way to fill Juice Thompson’s shoes, but the fatigue is becoming evident as at times Sobo is less effective than he can be. Illini junior Brandon Paul has started all 18 games for the Illini this season and is averaging 13.8 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. Paul’s numbers are just slightly higher than Sobo’s – except for average minutes played – so look for the guards to be directly competing all game long.
What to look for:
Northwestern has got to be feeling the pressure now as every game is pretty much a must-win. The problem, though, is that the ‘Cats are seriously depleted on the depth chart – only six guys saw action against Nebraska – and now the team is more fatigued in the most important games. Against the Cornhuskers, Drew Crawford and Dave Sobolewski each played 38 minutes while John Shurna played all 40. Carmody needs to carefully plan out how he’s going to use the few players he lets see the floor so that the ‘Cats can effectively compete for the entire game. Even with the best coaching, however, look for the effects of fatigue to set in if Carmody continues his short rotation and works his main guys for almost the entire game.
Where we’ll stand afterwards, win or loss:
If Northwestern drops this game, it’s safe to say that the chances of dancing in March are all but lost. In fact, even if the ‘Cats win this game their tournament aspirations are still in serious jeopardy. The team is just 3-6 in the Big Ten, with embarrassing blowout losses to both Wisconsin and Minnesota. Yes, upsetting Michigan State was impressive, but the rewards from that game do not outweigh the multitude of losses the ‘Cats have compiled. In order for Northwestern to even dream of making the tournament, they must start with a victory over the Illini.